By Mark Willacy
We call it the tomb,” says Christina Aningi, the head teacher of Enewetak’s only school.
“The children understand that we have a poison in our island.”
It’s “Manit Day” on Enewetak Atoll, a celebration of Marshall Islands culture when the Pacific nation’s troubled past seems a distant memory.
Schoolchildren sit cross-legged on the coral sands as they sing of the islands and atolls, the sunshine and the breeze; “flowers and moonlight, swaying palm trees.”
They were born decades after the last nuclear explosion ripped through the warm Pacific air with a thunderous roar. But it’s hard to escape the long echo of the bombs.
“Gone are the days when we live in fear, fear of the bombs, guns and nuclear,” they sing.
“This is the time … this is my country, this is my land.”
But those old fears, thought to be long buried, are threatening to reawaken in their island paradise.
Half Measures Lead to Growing Fears for the Future
In the late 1970s, Runit Island, on the remote Enewetak Atoll, was the scene of the largest nuclear clean-up in United States history.
Highly contaminated debris left over from dozens of atomic weapons tests was dumped into a 100-metre wide bomb crater on the tip of the uninhabited island.
US Army engineers sealed it up with a half-metre thick concrete cap almost the size of an Australian football ground, then left the island.
Now with sea levels rising, water has begun to penetrate the dome.
A report commissioned by the US Department of Energy in 2013 found that radioactive materials were leeching out, threatening the already tenuous existence of Enewetak locals.
“That dome is the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age,” says Marshall Islands climate change activist Alson Kelen.
“It’ll be a very devastating event if it really leaks. We’re not just talking the Marshall Islands, we’re talking the whole Pacific.”
Bombs and Relocations
The United States detonated 43 atomic bombs around the island chain in the 1940s and 50s.
Four of Enewetak’s 40 islands were completely vaporised by the tests, with one thermonuclear blast leaving a two-kilometre-wide crater where an island had been just moments before.
Enewetak’s population had been re-located to another island in the Marshalls ahead of the tests.
Residents would only be allowed to return home more than three decades later — some on the island today can still recall returning to Enewetak as children.
As part of the clean-up process, Washington set aside funds to build the dome as a temporary storage facility, and initial plans included lining the porous bottom of its crater with concrete.
But in the end, that was deemed too expensive.
“The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” says Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York.
“It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome.”
“That dome is the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age.”
Shrinking Homeland and Shrinking Traditional Lives
Locals rarely set foot on Runit Island. They’re fearful of the lingering radiation from the dome and because it’s been ruled off-limits.
To this day, only three islands along Enewetak Atoll’s slender rim are considered safe enough for human habitation.
“There was no point [cleaning them up].”
After the fall-out from the atomic testing, life for the people of Enewetak went from a traditional existence of fishing and subsistence living to one where the waters that once supported their livelihoods were now polluted.
On the main island, where most of the atoll’s few hundred people now live, concerns about the radioactive contamination of the food chain has seen a shift away from a traditional diet of fish and coconut.
The US Department of Energy has even banned exports of fish and copra from Enewetak because of the ongoing contamination.
The vast bulk of foodstuffs are now brought into the island by barge, and that means islanders are reliant on imported canned and processed goods like Spam that have triggered health problems such as diabetes.
The shelves of Enewetak’s only store are largely filled with American brand chocolate bars, lollies and potato chips.
Locals sometimes visit Runit to scavenge from scrap copper left behind by the Americans, selling it for a few dollars to a Chinese merchant.
For 30 years, Jack Niedenthal has helped the people of neighbouring Bikini Atoll fight for compensation for the 23 atomic tests conducted there.
“To me, it’s like this big monument to America’s giant f–k up,” says Niedenthal.
“This could cause some really big problems for the rest of mankind if all that goes underwater, because it’s plutonium and cement.”
Some of the debris buried beneath the dome includes plutonium-239, a fissile isotope used in nuclear warheads which is one of the most toxic substances on earth.
It has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.
Too Little, Too Late for Contamination Levels
Cracks are visible in the dome’s surface and brackish liquid pools around its rim.
“Already the sea sometimes washes over [the dome] in a large storm,” says Columbia University’s Michael Gerrard.
“The United States Government has acknowledged that a major typhoon could break it apart and cause all of the radiation in it to disperse.”
While Professor Gerrard would like the US to reinforce the dome, a 2014 US Government report says a catastrophic failure of the structure would not necessarily lead to a change in the contamination levels in the waters surrounding it.
“I’m persuaded that the radiation outside the dome is as bad as the radiation inside the dome,” says Professor Gerrard.
“And therefore, it is a tragic irony that the US Government may be right, that if this material were to be released that the already bad state of the environment around there wouldn’t get that much worse.”
But that is cold comfort to the people of Enewetak, who fear they may have to be relocated once again if the dome collapses or crumbles.
“If it does [crack] open most of the people here will be no more,” says Ms. Aningi.
“This is like a graveyard for us, waiting for it to happen.”Φ
Mark Willacy is an investigative journalist for the ABC’s National Reporting Team, based in Brisbane. A former Middle East and North Asia correspondent, Mark has reported for the ABC in more than 30 countries. This article appeared on November 26 at Foreign Correspondent. A 40-minute video that tells the story with images and more accounts is available at the Foreign Correspondent. Click here to access it.